The lost art of letter writing

There’s a generation of young people for whom letters – especially handwritten letters – must seem old-fashioned and quaint. In an age of instant communication via text, emails, Twitter and Facebook, most young people won’t have written any letters themselves, except perhaps to the tooth fairy, or Santa, or the occasional thank-you note.

But here’s the thing: even if most of us are too ‘time-poor’ to sit down and craft letters on a daily basis, most people surely still get a thrill out of receiving one. So the art of letter writing may well be lost but our fascination with letters endures.

The attention being given to the First World War during this centenary year is making me think of my paternal grandfather, Alfred Walder, who fought in the war and survived. Sadly, he died just after I was born so I never got to know him.

One of the few things I have from my grandfather is a handwritten letter, dated 15th June 1920, in a battered wallet (see image at top of page). The letter is from his brother, my grand-uncle, Percy who was serving on a dreadnought battleship HMS Temeraire in London. It begins:

My Dear Bro Alf, Winnie & Babs.

The letter doesn’t contain much in the way of news but it is brimming with cheerfulness and love. The Babs referred to is my uncle John, who was a newborn at this point and it seems grandad had just sent Percy a photograph of Winnie and the baby.

He closes with:

I remain your Loving and Affec. Brother Perce xx

Give these to Winn and Baby xxxxxxxx

And these? to you, Wonder xxxxx

PS I am keeping a four hour watch whilst writing this. I guess you’re between the sheets. Goodbye.

I find this letter genuinely moving. I never met my grandad or Percy but having heard how close they were, these flimsy sheets of paper provide a connection to the past and a little glimpse into their lives.

My grandad survived WW1, even though he was in a cavalry unit. Fortunately, he was kicked in the knee by a horse rather badly while in France and was shipped back to England. My father always spoke of grandad’s amazing affinity with, and love of, animals so it was especially pleasing to discover a couple of handwritten notes in the battered wallet that provide recipes for dealing with horses.

One is titled “To Quiet A Mare or Gelding”:

1 dram oil of Cummings, 1 dram oil of Carraways, 1 dram oil of Cassia, 12 drops oil of Rhodium. Rub a few drops on bit or nose…

There are other recipes for Appetite Powder, Oils to Make a Horse Follow You, and (ironically) How to Quiet A Kicker. Maybe grandad forgot to give that horse in northern France his quietening dose… If grandad hadn’t received the wound that sent him back to England things may well have turned out very differently. If he hadn’t survived the war, my father wouldn’t have been born, and I wouldn’t be writing these words.

But you don’t need to be related to someone to find their lives and times of interest. One of my favourite blogs is Letters of Note, run by Shaun Usher, who describes it as an “archive of fascinating correspondence.”

I’d urge you to read the blog and follow @LettersofNote on Twitter. The blog has been so successful that a compilation of letters has now been put together in book form.

Letters of Note - Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher.

There are letters from the rich and famous as well as the more humble and ordinary. All have something to say, and they say it in a great variety of ways – funny, sad, wise, and flippant. This article in The Guardian tells you more.

Shaun Usher’s favourite letter is one written in 1934 by Robert Pirosh, an aspiring screenwriter, to all the Hollywood players he could think of. It opens with:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady.

He goes on to list many, many wonderful words. It closes with:

May I have a few with you?

Having a word – how could he fail?

 

 

 

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The History of English – in 10 minutes

Back in 2011, The Open University produced a fun series of short videos called The History of English in 10 minutes.

Produced by the Open Learn section of The Open University, these videos are a fantastic free resource to anyone interested in the evolution of English.

So, what can you expect to learn? The OU’s describes the series as:

‘The History of English’ squeezes 1600 years of history into 10 one-minute bites, uncovering the sources of English words and phrases from Shakespeare and the King James Bible to America and the Internet. Bursting with fascinating facts, the series looks at how English grew from a small tongue into a major global language before reflecting on the future of English in the 21st century.

That’s a lot to pack into 10 minutes – but somehow they manage it. Here is the full set:

If you’d rather savour them one at a time, then go to the OUlearn YouTube channel here.

Enjoy!

 

 

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Inspector Montalbano: the world of Italian hand gestures

Luca Zingaretti, who plays Inspector Montalbano, BBC4

With the nights drawing in and temperatures beginning to drop here in the UK, what a tonic BBC4′s Italian police drama Inspector Montalbano is proving to be.

I can swap grey, chilly London for the gorgeous sunlit laneways and Baroque churches of the fictional Sicilian town of Vigàta, and especially Montalbano’s beach-side apartment.

The TV series is unlike any British police procedural. And it’s different again from the highly stylised and dark Nordic offerings such as Wallander and The Killing.

It has a curiously dated feel – the opening credit sequence looks like it could have come from the  1970s or 80s. The characters are generally exaggerated – Commissario Montalbano is gruff but caring (and always seems to have attractive women trying to seduce him). He loves good food and wine. Women are either very attractive (and attracted to Montalbano) or worn-out middle-aged cleaners. There are no female police officers to be seen. Montalbano’s colleagues are effective but somewhat stereotypical and in one case (Caterella ) a simple-minded clown. Oh, and the plots are often diffuse.

So why watch it? For me, it’s a winning combination of stunning locations, loveable characters, and… hand gestures. I always knew that hand gestures were an important part of any Italian’s vocabulary but with this TV series I’ve become fascinated with how much can be said with your hands. The interplay of gestures between Montalbano and his colleagues is mesmerising.

Earlier this year, The New York Times published a piece titled: When Italians Chat, Hands and Fingers Do the Talking. It seems likely that exaggerated hand gestures probably first appeared in polyglot Naples where many different languages were used and gestures were a way of making sure people could understand one another. Flamboyant gestures also help to get you noticed.

Here’s a potted history of Italian hand gestures from the New York Times article:

In my research I also found a fascinating article on the website Brainpickings which looked at a vintage visual dictionary of Italian hand gestures by Bruno Munari. Here’s a lovely illustration:

Can you figure out what they mean? From left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid good, wait a moment, to walk backwards, to steal, horns (cuckhold), to ask for.

I’m definitely going to start sprinkling a few of these into my daily conversations.

I’ll leave you with a short montage of Inspector Montalbano in action – Ciao!

 

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Diana Nyad: nominative determinism strikes again

Photo credit: www.guardian.co.uk

On August 31 2013, record-breaking long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, aged 64, became the first person ever to swim the 110 miles of open water from Havana, Cuba, to Florida. She swam this distance in 53 hours and without the aid of a shark cage.

While this is a truly impressive feat of endurance and determination (this was her fifth attempt), what struck me was that with a name like Nyad she couldn’t have done anything else.

Nyad sounds like naiad – naiads in Greek mythology were water nymphs or spirits. That’s cute, I thought. Then I noticed that naiad is an anagram of her first name – Diana. *Cue dramatic chords* So, could this just be coincidence or is something else in play?

There is a notion – called nominative determinism – that a person’s name can somehow influence the type of work or activities they do, and maybe even their character.

The idea is an ancient one but the term nominative determinism was coined in the 1990s in the Feedback column of the popular science magazine New Scientist (one of the examples cited was an article on incontinence that had been published in the British Journal of Urology by J W Splatt & D Weedon.)

As Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist, says in an article in The Evening Standard:

In 2002, nominative determinism became a serious study in its own right, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled ‘Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions’. On the assumption that ‘people prefer things that are connected to the self (for example, the letters in one’s name)’, authors Brett Pelham, Matthew Mirenberg and John Jones concluded that people are disproportionately likely to ‘choose careers whose labels resemble their names (for example, people named Dennis or Denise are over-represented among dentists).’

So, perhaps in naming her Diana, the Nyad parents had set something inevitable in  motion?

Once you start to be aware of the phenomenon, you’ll see examples of nominative determinism everywhere. For instance, where I live in Finchley, North London, there is a local dentist called Mr Fang.

Here are some of the examples Roger Highfield lists:

  • Usain Bolt Olympic champion and world record holder for the 100m and 200m.
  • Rich Ricci CEO of Barclays Capital who received a bonus package of £44 million in 2010.
  • Bill Cash MP who claimed more than £15,000 in expenses to pay his daughter’s rent.
  • Chris Moneymaker The first amateur winner of the $2.5m prize World Series of Poker in 2003.
  • Sara Blizzard Weather presenter for East Midlands Today.
  • John Doolittle & Tom DeLay Republicans who argued against any action on the ozone hole.
  • Wright Hassall Solicitors’ firm in Leamington Spa.

And, my favourite: Dr. Richard Chopp Leading urologist specialising in vasectomies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Atlas of True Names: making the familiar seem strange

Did you know that Great Britain can also be called ‘Great Land of The Tattooed’?

Not because of the popularity of tattoos in this country. Rather, it’s the name you arrive at if you look deeper into the etymology of the words ‘Great Britain’. (Maybe this is why Cheryl Cole couldn’t help getting her infamous rose tattoo?)

This etymological approach to place names has been pursued by a company called Kalimedia and they’ve now produced a series of maps of The British Isles, Canada, The USA and Europe called The Atlas of True Names.

As Kalimedia says on its website:

Once the names have been taken back to their roots and translated into English, it is immediately apparent that our world has an extraordinary affinity with Middle Earth, the mythical continent where the events of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings are played out.

So, I can now say that I come from The Great Land of The Tattooed.  I was born in Northern Enclosed Farm (Northampton) but I now live in the capital city, Unfordable River Town (London). Or should that be Unaffordable River Town?

So – where are you from?

Atlas of True Names - section of SE England. Photo credit: www.kalimedia.com

 

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We need to close the compound noun gap…

The English language comprises hundreds of thousands of words and is rich in phrases, idioms and other word combinations. And yet, sometimes even English struggles to convey exactly what you mean, despite numerous ‘borrowings’ of words from other languages.

Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North often captures the absurdities of language and linguistics by means of two talking dinosaurs. I urge you to visit Dinosaur Comics often – you won’t regret it.

Here’s a great example:

 

 

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Sorry seems to be the hardest word: or, the art of the non-apology

Im Sorry

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
― Benjamin Franklin

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
― John Wayne

Every once in a while, people in public life have to apologise for something they’ve said or done. While never an easy thing to get right, of late public apologies have ranged from the grudging to borderline rude.  Genuine contrition is rare.

When caught out, instead of simply holding their hands up and saying “I was wrong. I’m sorry” people often say: “I’m sorry if anyone has been offended by what I said/did…”, or “I misspoke…”, “People have misunderstood. What I meant to say was …”

The inference being that you’re not sorry for what you did – just sorry for being put in a rather awkward situation where you are forced to publicly apologise for saying or doing what you did.  When it comes to apologising, people are more like John Wayne (never apologise) than Benjamin Franklin (no excuses).

A classic recent example was given by motor racing legend Sir Stirling Moss who, in an interview, said he didn’t want a “poofter or anyone like that” to play him if a movie of his life was ever made. Inevitably, he had to issue an apology:

“I’m sorry I’ve caused offence, but I’m disappointed anyone could be so narrow-minded as to take offence. It was not meant to cause any.”

Do you see what he did there? He apologised then immediately insulted anyone that was offended by what he had said.

A far more tangled apology was attempted last week by US singer Michelle Shocked following some anti-gay remarks she made at a concert. Her rambling apology (read The Guardian’s account of it here), saying she had been misunderstood didn’t really stack up against the audio recording of the gig. Her apology therefore only served to dig the hole she’s in even deeper.

A more straightforward but no less puzzling apology was given last week by actor Bill Roache, better known as Ken Barlow, the character he has played in long-running soap Coronation Street for more than 50 years.

As told by the Daily Express online, he seemed to suggest in a television interview in New Zealand that he believed victims of sex abuse were paying the price for actions in “previous lives” and that it was easy for men in the public eye to be “trapped by young groupies.”

As the Express noted, he “quickly backtracked” and apologised:

“I would like to say I am very sorry for any offence caused. I would never say that victims of sexual offences are in any way responsible for the abuse they have suffered and I offer my deepest apologies if anything I have said has been misunderstood in this way.”

But this simply contradicts what he said in the interview – and then offers apologies if what he said had been misunderstood.

The list of high profile apologies is seemingly endless – Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, Kanye West … If you want a definitive catalogue of bad apologies, then I recommend a visit to one of my new favourite blogs – Sorry Watch.

Even the US satirical website The Onion had to apologise last month for an Oscar-night tweet about young actress Quvenzhané Wallis (and it wasn’t about misspelling her name).  I would urge you, however, to read The Onion’s merciless send up of Republican Senate nominee Todd Atkins’ non-apology for his ridiculous comments on abortion last year.

So, the question remains: is it possible to apologise well and salvage your reputation in the process?

One person who seems to have managed it is Jesse Jackson Jr who was accused of conspiracy and fraud earlier this year. In a post on the PRSA-NCC blog, Jonathan Rick deconstructs Jackson’s brilliant apology and offers five ways he (or his lawyer) got it right. My favourite is point number 3: “He doesn’t dance around the elephant. Instead, he walks straight up to it and apologizes, directly and earnestly.”

So, come on – no more dancing round the elephant, guys!

 

 

 

 

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Rapping the alphabet Bajan-style

The internet truly is full of wonders -you never know what little gems you are going to find.

While visiting the Facebook page Totally Barbados recently, I came across this great video clip of a Rastafarian who clearly loves the sound and feel of words as he raps through the alphabet in his Bajan lilt. Prompted by his sidekick he reels off a stream of words for each letter in an almost seamless performance.

I haven’t managed to find out who he is. If anyone knows, please let me know and I’ll be happy to give him a full credit.

The clip is called Brilliant Bajan Alliteration:

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Using words to paint pictures…

I love words. And I love certain typefaces (particularly Johnston sans – the font used by Transport for London), although I hate others (I’m looking at you, comic sans).

I also really like the combination of words and fonts, as seen in kinetic typography. So, it was a delight to stumble across this short clip called Word as Image made by Ji Lee. It’s an animated trailer for his book.

Lee’s description of his work is as follows:

Challenge: Create an image out of a word, using only the letters in the word itself.
Rule: Use only the graphic elements of the letters without adding outside elements.

It’s interesting to see how the letters that make up a word can be used to express and enhance it’s meaning.

See for yourself:

Word as Image (by Ji Lee) from jilee on Vimeo.

 

 

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Strewth: a treasure trove of Aussie lingo

I recently came across a wonderful treasure trove of YouTube video clips on the Australian Geographic website. They feature an Aussie bloke called Frank Povah talking about Aussie English – anything from Sheila to bung, chook, and furphy.

Anyone with an interest in Australian English (Strine) will delight in these clips. Frank has a typically laconic delivery and is a trusty guide. Although, sadly, I notice the most recent clip was uploaded in 2011. Let’s hope there will be more.

To give you a taste – here’s a clip about the word furphy, which means a rumour:

 

 

 

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